This post caters towards those who have already watched most, if not all, of Studio Ghibli’s classics such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, The Cat Returns, and so on. All of the anime on this list include either fantastical or science-fiction themes, and are highly recommended for anime-loving enthusiasts of speculative fiction.
These are five of my favorite anime that have not been produced by Studio Ghibli. They are beautifully illustrated, and have plots that truly touch your heart. If you haven’t watched these shows already, I recommend that you do so!
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a science-fiction romance that centers on a girl who accidentally gains the power to travel through time. Although a bit more slow-paced and less well-known than the other films on this list, this movie remains one of my favorites. It leaves a subtle but lasting emotional impact that will remain long after the ending credits roll through. Recommended for solo viewing on a quiet or rainy night.
Paprika will leave you wondering if you were hallucinating straight from the beginning to the end of the movie. It is based on the novel Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui—the same novel that inspired the influential blockbuster film Inception. Although both Inception and Paprika revolve around the concept of dreams and the illusion of reality, Paprika has less of a structured plot, and the animation lends a fluidity to the scenes that is not achievable in Inception. Be prepared to absorb the mass of color that will entrance your eyes, and let the wonder of visuals and plot twists entangle your mind.
Your Name follows two Japanese high school students that miraculously swap bodies in the aftermath of a celestial event. It offers a light-hearted depiction of their individual hardships of living life in a body that doesn’t align with their gender. Yet viewer anticipation gradually builds up as the possibility of the two protagonists meeting grows. Your Name is irresistibly sweet yet frustrating—what you want the most seems to always slip through your fingers—and it is a must-watch film. Recommended for dual-viewing so you can squeeze each other’s sweaty hands in anticipation of what’s to come next. P.S.: Don’t forget the tissue box.
Parasyte -the maxim-
Parasyte -the maxim- is not a show for the faint-hearted (if you don’t like blood, beware!). It’s a science-fiction horror anime series where parasites take over human hosts. What’s engrossing about this show is that there’s no clear black-and-white division between the parasites and the humans—we are shown different perspectives that allow us to form a holistic view of this particular world. The animation is stunningly created, and I personally thought Migi was the cutest alien I’d ever seen. I don’t usually recommend pulling all-nighters, but it’s definitely worth considering for this show.
The society of Psycho-Pass revolves around a system that dictates how people should live to obtain maximum security and happiness. The system determines their medical needs, job prospects, potential for criminality, and their potential for treatment (e.g. through therapy). It’s set in a pretty depressing and dystopic world, but the show is filled with action and drama that allows you to be entertained while wondering if that’s what our future could possibly look like. Recommended for those late nights when you feel like being distracted from your work.
I hope you enjoy these recommendations. Let us know below if you have any differing opinions, or if there’s another list you’d like us to make!
With The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman has completed one of the most sophisticated fantasy series of recent times. Written carefully and glowing with subtle beauty, The Magicians trilogy depicts the hopes and malaise of a self-conscious, self-critical, and sometimes self-destructive group of young adults trying to find their place in the world.
The trilogy is clearly inspired by Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and echoes Brideshead Revisited and The Catcher in the Rye. Allusions to Shakespeare and Dungeons and Dragons permeate the novels indiscriminately, and Grossman has even made a helpful starting list of some of the allusions in the first book. In many ways, The Magicians trilogy is a love letter to literature—it is both a paean for fantasy and the wonders of reading as well as a dirge to the loss of childhood dreams and the escape of make-believe.
The first novel, The Magicians, opens with Quentin, a socially inhibited high school senior, being accepted into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a secret university dedicated to the study of magic. Though Quentin is initially thrilled at the prospect of studying magic, the allure soon wears off. Learning magic is a rigorous, arduous, and tedious task that resembles the real world university experience of stressful exams and trying to absorb swaths of information in short periods of time. (Though most of us don’t have to learn Arabic, Aramaic, Old High Dutch, and Old Church Slavonic in just a few weeks.)
Quentin has been obsessed with the Fillory and Further book series (a simulacrum of The Chronicles of Narnia) since his childhood, and when he and his friends discover that Fillory is real, they believe that lasting happiness is finally within their reach. But their expedition to Fillory is a disaster, filled with tragedy and loss. One of the key themes of the first novel is the constant, crushing, and bitter disillusionment and disappointment that one faces in the ‘real world’.
Many readers will find that the biggest obstacle to enjoying these novels is the characters, particularly Quentin. Readers will almost certainly (and rightly) cringe at Quentin’s rabid entitlement and his abysmal treatment of women for much of the first two novels.
But there is another factor at play here: Quentin has depression, and I cannot help but think that a large part of the negative reaction towards him is based not in aversion to his sexism and narcissism, but to a lack of understanding of and stigma surrounding mental illness.
Readers will often bemoan how despite being given the opportunity to learn magic, something most of us can only dream of, Quentin spends most of his time avoiding serious study of magic, and instead chases instant gratification.
This is arguably the most achingly and powerfully realistic aspect of the series. Quentin’s depression is not magically solved when he discovers magic; it doesn’t go away with the flick of a wand. He struggles with it, and it is often difficult, but it is a part of who he is. These novels candidly tackle what it means to live with mental illness, a subject that is often ignored in speculative fiction.
Returning to the subject of Quentin’s sexism, it is important to understand that this is not an accidental aspect of the narrative, but is part of Quentin’s larger trajectory of growth. The Magicians trilogy operates as an extended bildungsroman in which Quentin learns to take responsibility for himself and his actions.
One of the ways the trilogy reflects Quentin’s self-obsession giving way to maturity is that the narrative expands to encompass more point of view characters. In the first novel, Quentin’s perspective is inescapable. The second novel sees the inclusion of the point of view of Julia, a friend from Quentin’s high school who does not get accepted into Brakebills and instead becomes a self-taught magician. The third novel is populated with the perspectives of Alice, Janet, Elliot, and Plum.
This widening of vision also allows the reader to see not just how Quentin has matured, but also how his friends have come into their own as well. Eliot goes from being a self-hating gay man who drowns his internalized homophobia with alcohol to the High King of Fillory, a responsible and loyal sovereign dedicated to protecting the magical world. Janet, famed and feared for her acerbic tongue and caustic wit, becomes possibly the coolest character in the series from just one chapter that explores her single-handed annexation of a desert state. At the end of the first novel, Alice, a magician prodigy and Quentin’s girlfriend, transforms herself into a niffin, a demon made of blue fire, in order to save her friends from Martin Chatwin. Her sacrifice is heroic and tragic, and her subsequent disappearance affects Quentin deeply.
In the third novel, Quentin manages to undo the spell that had turned Alice into a niffin. Though Quentin believes he has saved Alice and finally done the right thing, Alice is livid. She had enjoyed being a niffin because for once in her life she did not have to be meek or kind, she did not have to coddle Quentin, and she did not have to sacrifice herself for those around her. Instead, she could be selfish and independent, and had the unquestionable sense that she was right about everything all the time.
In other words, she was acting like Quentin had throughout much of the books, and like many men in patriarchal culture.
It is only in the third book, when Quentin has matured, that he is able to have healthy relationships with women. He teams up with Plum, a talented magician and one of his former students, during a heist to steal the suitcase of Rupert Chatwin. Their relationship is based in mutual respect and trust. Plum is the first woman Quentin treats as his equal. Perhaps more importantly for Quentin’s social development, their relationship is completely platonic, and neither assumes or expects there to be a romantic or sexual dimension to their relationship.
The positive treatment and portrayal of Plum is especially welcome in comparison to the tragedy that plagues the other women characters in the series. Alice and Julia, the two most important women characters in the trilogy, are dehumanized. Alice becomes a demon made of pure magic; Julia becomes part god after being the victim of a brutal and sickening ceremony. Even Janet, though she retains her physical humanity, only reaches her full power after she has discarded her emotionality.
And this is why Quentin’s success in reversing Alice’s niffin state is so crucial to the narrative structure of the series. It symbolizes that Quentin has finally overcome his sexism, and that for the first time he is able to see Alice as fully human, as someone whose life does not revolve around him. It is only then that the possibility that they may have a successful, happy, and truly loving relationship opens up.
At the end of the third book, Quentin and Alice make a land—that is to say, they make a new world or dimension (hence the title of the third novel, The Magician’s Land). The spell they use to do so requires a plant that is the incarnation of the wonder children feel when they discover a new world in a book.
Quentin and Alice decide to remain in their new world and explore it together. Their adventure begins with the appearance of the Cozy Horse, a figure from Fillory, whom they decide to follow and see where it leads them.
The trilogy thus ends on a powerfully poignant metaphor, one that stands for both life in general and for the writing process. Just as Quentin realizes that he must move on from Fillory in order to have a good life, so too must we move on from our childhood and adolescent fixations. Eventually, we must create our own worlds and lives. This process begins as a seed—as a distant intimation of who we could one day become and what we might be capable of doing. If we’re lucky, through care and effort, this vision will bloom into reality.
The appearance of the Cozy Horse represents how our imaginations are captured by certain ideas or motifs, and how we then repeat them in our own creations, as Virgil did with Homer, as Michael Cunningham did with Virginia Woolf, and as Lev Grossman did with C. S. Lewis. We take the ideas of our predecessors that strike our souls, and use them as the foundation to build new artworks for a new age.
And so the cycle continues, for The Magicians trilogy will undoubtedly have planted a seed in the minds of many young writers, and they too will be writing back to it when they create their own land, fondly remembering the trilogy that took an uncompromising and honest view of the fantasy genre.
Whether it’s character depth or stylistic choices, the book most often surpasses the movie. Naturally, this is because there is so much that can slip by during the conversion between the two mediums. This is why I tend to not involve myself with two forms of the same content. If I watch the movie, then I will not read the book.
And yet, when a fellow editor recommended the book version of Howl’s Moving Castle to me, insisting it was very different—in a good way—and also quite British, it was more than enough to hook me in.
However, during my first read-through I kept imagining the characters in their Miyazaki-animated form, with their English dubbings (and Christian Bale as Howl!), against my will. I wanted to experience the story and see the characters as Dianna Wynne Jones, not Miyazaki, weaved them to be. But that was impossible. I had re-watched the movie to the extent that even the subtlest movements of the characters were engrained in my mind. So I accepted the pain and finished the novel.
As expected, the book was quite interesting. Definitely a “page-turning, sorry-I-can’t-eat-dinner-until-I-finish-this” kind of experience, because it was so different.
The only commonality between the book and the movie was the basic premise of the story. The characters’ personalities were much more vivid and extreme in Jones’ work, making Miyazaki’s version seem much more “Japanese” than it did before.
Here are some key differences I noted:
Difference 1: Sophie’s Family
After reading the book, I finally understood who that blonde girl in the bakery was – she was Sophie’s sister, Martha. In the novel, Martha tells Sophie that her stepmother is taking advantage of her hat-making abilities. Sophie thenleaves the shop and confronts her stepmother.
A large portion of the novel actually focuses on Sophie’s familial relationships, which was pretty much dropped from the entire movie. (The only scene in the movie that features Sophie’s family is when Lettie says “Do something for yourself once in a while, okay?” as Sophie is leaving).
Another big change: Sophie’s family, though human, is magical. There is no strict divide between wizard/witch and the average human in the novel because humans – can be trained to harness their magical abilities by learning spells and such. Sophie has talent for fashion, but also magic, which makes her infinitesimally cooler.
D2: Sophie’s character change
The young Sophie in the movie is quite mild-mannered and considerate, which makes me want to describe her as “nice” and nothing more. I wouldn’t have felt anything for her character if she had not been cursed. As the old granny Sophie, she is much quirkier and rougher with the people around her, alike to the book version of herself.
In the book Sophie is blunt, stubborn, nosy, and she protects herself by creating a wall of anger around her if anyone tries to get too close. She’s a more exciting protagonist.
D3: Howl’s Eccentricity
This is best captured during Howl’s green slime/ tantrum scene in the movie, when Sophie messes up his beautification potions and he accidentally dyes his hair black. Although it’s a funny scene where Howl looks pretty pathetic, it didn’t really fit with the previous images of Howl that Miyazaki presented in the movie. He always seemed so blasé and charismatic before this particular scene, I didn’t realize that he was the type to overreact about such a small mistake.
Basically, he is not the dramatic, narcissistic player that we meet in the novel. In the book, Howl is constantly grooming himself and playing his guitar to woo girls all over the country. He slips out of any situation that requires him to make decisions or take on responsibilities (seen in the movie when he makes Sophie act like his mom). But in the movie, he’s out of the castle most of the time because he’s busy with war, not girls. Which makes him seem more serious and responsible than he actually is in the book.
I guess he’s less interesting to some people in the movie version, but I think I’d prefer movie Howl over narcissistic Howl. Just a personal preference.
D4: The Witch of the Waste
In the movie she is reduced to a sad, fat granny who we all sympathize with (except for the scene when she grabs Howl’s heart—SO irritating).
On the other hand, in the book, she’s an elegant lady who is evil, twisted, and obsessed with Howl. Her master plan is to kidnap Wizard Sulliman (whose existence is downplayed in the movie), the King’s son Justin, and Howl, to combine their body parts to make a perfect mate for herself. After picking out her favorite parts, she leaves the rest to become a scarecrow, a skull, and a man who can change into a dog.
D6: The ending
In both the novel and the movie the ending is quite rushed. The movie ends quite romantically; it’s almost a bit too cheesy for my taste. Everyone’s suddenly good, the world becomes a happier place, and love is in the air. On the other hand, in the book Howl is still a narcissist. Less so, but still.
Overall, yes, the movie does lack essential character and plot points in the novel. But it does have its own merits, like the visual metaphors that aren’t present in the novel.
In the movie, Howl finds it more and more difficult to revert back from being a black bird into his original form and this portrays his descent into heartlessness. Also, Sophie in the movie temporarily changes back into her normal young self when she is happy, or in love. Both of these elements do not occur in the novel, and it’s an interesting way for Miyazaki to show us the characters’ internal struggles against their respective curses.
The greatest asset of the movie is undoubtedly the impact of the astounding visuals and the music of the movie. These are beautiful, detailed, and subtle.
The book and movie versions of Howl’s Moving Castle are vastly different, yet compelling in their own, unique ways. Jones’ book and Miyazaki’s movie appeal to both the mind and the heart – and that is how you know that Howl’s Moving Castle is a moving and incredible speculative piece.
For the ordinary person being a hero is a compelling notion, as it represents the apex of humanity: saving others at the risk of your own well-being. It is often considered unattainable, for one may lack the skills, or the intellect to save the world. Most importantly, one may be overcome with fear of the inevitable component of self-sacrifice.
How is it that heroism has become must always end in self-sacrifice?
The paradox of heroism is hinted in the “death positivity bias” theory. Essentially, this means that we love heroes most, and we treat heroes greatest when they’re gone. Especially when they die for the “greater good”.
However morbid and unfortunate the inclination, I have to admit there is something romantically tragic about heroic sacrifice. It is a special phenomenon, an example of extreme behaviour that is rarely seen in everyday life.
The rarity of the heroic sacrifice makes us respect the hero more, enhancing their unattainable “god-like” status. At the same time, we appreciate the fact that they are not totally inaccessible because they too have flaws.
Now heroic sacrifice is losing meaning rapidly, frayed with overuse. Ironically, what was meant to put more meaning into the character, is now taking away from it – death used to mean something.
When Lightning Lad died fifty years ago battling Zaryan the conqueror it had dramatic weight, and created emotional impact.
Perhaps it is my overexposure to bad films that has worn away my love for heroic tales. In my defence, most of the time cinematic heroic sacrifices have an inherent alternate solution, but the author chooses to turn a blind eye on logic to either create the “bittersweet effect,” or to go against the expected “happily-ever-after” ending entrenched in culture by Disney. By doing so, the writer simultaneously creates the idea that this character is too great for this world, and too cool to fit cookie-cutter endings.
So what separates the meaningful from the senseless versions of heroic sacrifice?
I recently re-stumbled upon a sci-fi manga called Eternal Sabbath by Fuyumi Soryo. Eternal Sabbath is the name of a gene created by scientists who strived for immortality. The basic function of the gene is to immunize the body against all strains of viruses. It was tested out on several genetically engineered humans.
After several experiments, results determined that the gene was so aggressive that it targeted the body of the carrier, killing all of the test subjects except one, who, once developed, was named “Shuro.” Joyous from the single success, the scientists cloned him, producing Isaac – who was essentially a back-up just in case the original, Shuro, needed another organ or something as equally as horrific.
The important distinction between the two that sets up the plot for the rest of the series is that although Shuro and Isaac are clones, Shuro was the only one who experienced the full range of human emotions, as he was not trapped inside an artificial womb like Issac was.
The two get separated, and Fuyumi Soryo presents a distinct dichotomy right from the beginning – the dichotomy of good versus evil, ironically stemming from the exact same root.
Shuro is obviously the main character, as the aloof hero who eventually softens when he meets Mine Kujo, a neurology researcher. They develop a mutual goal: to put an end to Isaac, who has become corrupt and ruthless. Nearly every supporting character dies by his hand.
In a way, Soryo desensitizes and habituates readers with the ongoing deaths that occur in the first seven volumes while developing the novel’s darker themes. I flinched a bit at a particularly gruesome murder, as the emotional ties with the characters flew out the window. Oh, there goes the little girl. And her mother. And her father.
However, since it is a Josei manga I knew there was bound to be a turn-around somewhere. And there is, although not one I expected.
At first I thought it was all just a part of the author’s intention of creating a specific atmosphere for the series – dark, almost apocalyptic, heavy sci-fi. Maybe Soryo’s point was to show Isaac’s insurmountable power and lack of morality. Or, to emphasize the good vs. evil dichotomy, ironized by the fact that they are clones of each other.
That is, until the series reached volume eight, when Shuro dies in a single page. It was so sudden and was so implicitly stated that even Mine had to take in a moment to fully comprehend what just happened.
The effect to which Soryo creates this moment is absolutely amazing. Shuro’s death was as quick as any other death in the story, but it was right after a battle with his counterpart Isaac – a fight, which ended too suddenly, and one everyone thought Shuro won.
This is the moment everyone (both fictional and real) has been waiting for, yet it is oddly anticlimactic, continuously floating in mid-air, buoyant with hanging ellipses. Something has gone awry, but what? We (readers and Mine) only realize this when Shuro responds to her uncharacteristically.
In the whole sequence Mine is so stone-faced and unresponsive, we know something is wrong, but no one wants to voice it – not even Mine herself.
We discover that Isaac displaced Shuro’s mind into his own body, took over Shuro’s body, and murdered his (Isaac’s) own physical body with Shuro inside of it.
The battle and the focus shift to Mine versus Isaac, which is an extremely powerful one because it is an internal one, a mental struggle. Their fight literally occurs in their minds.
The meaning Soryo embeds in Shuro’s sacrifice is a significant one, as she shows us that although battles do not necessarily end because the hero gives up his or her life for it, their sacrifice does not have to be a meaningless one. In fact, I feel as though Shuro’s death was more meaningful than the deaths of heroes whose sacrifice resulted in their side’s victory, because Shuro’s sacrifice initiated Mine’s heroism.
The heroes who sacrificed themselves and bring an end to struggles become revered and unattainable, but Shuro proved that it doesn’t matter who you are and what your limits are. Supernatural or human, no matter where your roots lie, heroism is not unattainable; rather, it is merely a kind of potential that just needs ignition.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go takes place in a parallel universe after the Second World War, where human cloning is predominant in medical science. Written in the first person perspective, the novel is woven from the memories of the protagonist, Kathy H., and touches upon the lives of many others, particularly those of her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy. A good portion of the book gives us insight into Kathy’s life at a special boarding school called Hailsham, and the constantly evolving romantic-triangle-esque relationship between the three friends. As its speculative undertones become more apparent, the novel makes us question what it is to be human in a scientifically advanced world.
I cannot imagine the novel being written in any perspective other than Kathy’s, especially because her tone of voice suits the novel so perfectly. The first section of the novel, “Childhood,” contrasts drastically with the second and third sections, “The Cottages” and “Donor,” respectively. As a child, Kathy is free-spirited, passionate, and stands up for what she believes in. However, as she ages, this gradually fades and is replaced with a cool and collected perspective that seems to be almost emotionless. The fade of passion marks her lost innocence, which makes sense because as she matures, she comes to understand and accept what it means for her purpose in life to be an organ donor to ‘real’ people.
At the end of the novel Kathy placidly describes her best friends going to “completion”—which is to say, dying—is frightening and creates an emotional divide between her and the readers. Her resignation to her fate makes it hard for us to empathize with her, and this is probably the best comparison to the stigma against human clones Ishiguro provides for us. We view things that appear to be emotionless or too different from us as ‘soulless,’ and put up a barrier that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Thus when some people reason that clones must not have souls, they believe that it is morally acceptable to use clones as needed, similar to how they treat animals.
The science fiction aspect of the novel is underplayed. Whether this is because Ishiguro wanted to make it more accessible to increase readership is debatable. But the novel definitely could have explained more about the whole process of cloning and organ distribution, as many of the logistical details were left out. One of my questions was how did they keep track of all of the clones? Was there some sort of intricate system of tracking devices? And even if there was, why did no one ever try to escape it? I understand that Ishiguro wanted to emphasize the hopelessness of existence in the novel, but by creating a world where the clones do not even consider the idea of escaping the system, Ishiguro is just reinforcing the idea that they are clones, and just clones.
During their adolescence , Kathy and Tommy did have several discussions concerning the hushed system of Hailsham, but their questioning natures diminish as they reach adulthood. This is probably because they realize that they have no other option—but in the readers’ perspective, they were the best candidates to oppose the inhumane system of their world. The fact that they did not oppose, and furthermore, could not survive the system, completely extinguishes whatever hopes the readers held on to.
It is true that all of them were led into believing that their purpose in life was to donate their organs and care for other clones. However, isn’t innovative thinking one of the greatest assets of the human mind? I feel like there were many loopholes in the system that the characters could have taken advantage of (for example, who, if anyone, would punish them for trying to escape, and how would they be punished?). Their failure to actually rebel is such a shame.
The scientific backdrop of the novel is interesting and enticing for science fiction lovers, but by the end of the novel it becomes apparent that Ishiguro mainly incorporates this setting in order to emphasize the hopeless tone of the novel. The fact that the main characters are clones and are forced to donate their organs until they “completed” leaves them wondering how long they can live their lives as ordinary people. Ishiguro masters the structure of the novel by juxtaposing this lengthened time of bliss to the short period of time they are monitored and live as “carers” and “donors.” The abrupt ending to each carefully-described life highlights the cruelty of the world in Never let Me Go.
I usually expect speculative pieces to immerse me in a new, fantastical world, yet I actually found this novel too normal. Ishiguro’s writing style is very simple, and no sentence was particularly profound or grabbed my attention for a re-read. However, Ishiguro resolved the novel with a sense of closure, and the ending scene was an excellent moment in the novel. Overall, the character development and the storytelling were incredible. Ishiguro has a way of weaving words and storylines in the most careful and intricate way so that the reader is gently pulled along until the end (just like the clones).